When our blog readers were posed the question “If you could only grow two herbs, which would you choose?”, more than 20 herbs were listed.
Overwhelmingly though, basil was mentioned. We would have to agree, and we think of basil more as a veggie in our house than an herb. It is certainly a garden staple.
The most commonly grown variety is the Large Leaf, aka Italian Basil. This is what is usually used for Pesto Sauce and in most recipes that call for basil.
There are many other types, including flavors like Lemon and Cinnamon, as well as Thai and other Asian basil plants. Experiment and see what you like best.
Basil seeds can take a long time to germinate, just be patient. You can grow it indoors or outside after the last spring frost. Most basil cultivars are container friendly, so they’re easily added to a container garden.
Planting is easy; just give them about 8 inches between plants, a little more for the taller varieties.
We like to direct seed in between rows of tomatoes. This helps cut down on weeds and we do think it improves the flavor of the tomatoes. At the very least we know it won’t hurt. The tomatoes also help prevent bolting by shading the plants a bit.
Pinching back the tops of the plants will make them get bushier and produce more. Harvest basil fresh until you see it start to produce flowers—this is bolting mentioned above; at this point the plant won’t be growing any more leaves and will lose that lush, healthy look. Now is the time to harvest the entire plant.
To store, you can make the incredibly easy and wonderfully versatile Pesto Sauce; the recipe is on our blog and our YouTube channel.
You can also dry the rest of the leaves to store. Unfortunately dried basil darkens, and the appearance is not always what you want to see. But these were our only two ways to preserve basil until an elderly first-generation Italian woman told me drying basil was “for amateurs. The real way to store it is to freeze the leaves, then you just break off what you need.”
Of course she was right and although we do still dry some, we mostly freeze. Viva l’Italia!
Botanical Name: Ocimum basilicum
Days to maturity: 60-80
Yield: One bushy plant per seed.
Harvest: As needed but before the frost.
Gardening Jones is a master gardener based in Pennsylvania. Learn more at her blog.